It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been employed by Michigan State University for five months at the time of writing this blog post. The past five months have been a rollercoaster: buying a new home during a pandemic, moving a farm (including 13 goats) 450 miles, navigating the difficulties of rural Internet access for the umpteenth time, being unable to fully explore my new community due to the pandemic, missing my friends and family, and trying to learn what it means to be a professor while working exclusively out of a home office. I don’t know about other new professors, but that last one has been the hardest. In my heart I am a lover of organizations. Not being able to fully explore and discover the different kinds of tacit knowledge embodied in hallway conversations, in-person meeting norms, different conference rooms, and being stripped of the ability to formally meet most of my new colleagues has meant that while I am indeed an Assistant Professor of Media & Information at Michigan State University, I still feel only half-attached to the institution I now call home.
In other ways I have been very fortunate to connect to students as a teacher and a mentor. My very first time solo teaching went as well as it could’ve possibly gone in the era of Zoom University. I hired my very first research assistant last week who will be working with me on data analysis for The LGBTQ Futures Project. And I am teaching a new class this semester on Rural Innovation & Computing that I hope exposes students to new and interesting ideas about the role of rural places in America’s technological future.
While I didn’t get anything published (though I submitted one paper on the impact of COVID on rural tourism economies), I am excited for what this new year holds for my research. I continue to have way too many ideas to write about and am working extra hard this year (within reason) to make sure those get out into the world so I can stop repeating them over and over in my head. But beyond just what I see as “productive” for my career, I have to keep reminding myself that we live in extraordinary times and that our primary goal should be to help each other survive, building communities and economies of solidarity in the process.
I defended my dissertation on June 30 in a BlueJeans video conference. While not quite the defense and celebration I had envisioned for this, I’m glad that it’s finished (for now). The dissertation was titled Rural Transformation in the 21st Century: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and High-Tech Economies in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. My Co-Chairs were Silvia Lindtner and Tiffany Veinot, and my committee members were Tawanna Dillahunt, Mary Gray, and Christian Sandvig.
The dissertation was an ethnographic investigation into the promises of high-tech innovation and entrepreneurship for the economic development practices of a rural region. I identify and draw out a paradox where rural communities are constructed as geographic deficits that are ripe for outside intervention, while simultaneously being advertised as unique spaces for technological innovation. Through this, I document three processes of economization to demonstrate how rural communities in the Keweenaw Peninsula were made as places for technological opportunity and intervention. I argue that this making of the region falls in line with normative narratives of economic growth that are often at odds with the economic and technological realities of rural places that have radically different needs and approaches to community formation and solidarity.
I’m featured in a recent BuzzFeed News article, “This Pandemic is not your Vacation,” written by Anne Helen Petersen. I talk about what I call “disaster gentrification,” or how rural communities are seen as a place of respite by urban outsiders. In cases like the COVID-19 pandemic, this has resulted in many outbreaks in rural communities due to second home owners and other outsiders retreating there, stretching thin the already thin healthcare infrastructure of American rural places.
This past week was the annual Association for Computing Machinery’s conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW for short). Presentations at computer science and HCI conferences are often tied to publications in the proceedings for that conference and I was fortunate enough to have a paper accepted for publication titled, Rural HCI Research: Definitions, Distinctions, Methods, and Opportunities (pdf here | ACM Digital Library entry here). My co-authors were Susan Wyche, an associate professor at Michigan State University, and Tiffany Veinot, my amazing co-adviser).
The paper is based off a systematic scoping review of HCI research conducted in rural settings or drawing explicitly from rural data. Our purpose was to investigate how exactly did HCI research conceptualize what rural meant. We created two typologies drawing from research in rural studies, geography, sociology, etc. that answered two questions: how is rural defined and what are the unique characteristics of rural places? We used these typologies to analyze our corpus of papers from HCI.
We found that more than twice as many rural HCI articles have been conducted in low-income and/or developing countries than in high-income and/or developed countries. HCI researchers rarely define rurality, and when they do, they primarily define it using
descriptive rather than sociocultural or symbolic definitions. Rather, researchers focused primarily on infrastructure and geographic isolation as key characteristics in justifying or situating the rural in their studies. Because of this, existing HCI research conducted in rural communities largely sets up the rural as something oppositional and different to the urban, rather than as an opportunity to compare rural places and learn about rurality more broadly. There is of course, a lot more in the paper, so I encourage you to read it.
If people are interested in talking about this research, or what I think about the future of rural computing more broadly, feel free to reach out to me using my contact info provided above 🙂
Presenting at CSCW 2019, photo by Calvin Liang (@cal_liang).
One of the academic fields that I regularly contribute to and engage with is human-computer interaction, a discipline at the intersection of computer science, behavioral science, and design. HCI programs at universities don’t only produce research, but also user experience professionals, designers, data scientists, software engineers, and many others. The primary magazine that serves this interdisciplinary community, Interactions, has an article this month, Designing from the Rural, written by myself, Chanda Phelan, Morgan Vigil-Hayes, Norman Makoto Su, Susan Wyche, and Phoebe Sengers.
In the article, we argue that the time is ripe for the radical foregrounding of rural computing. By rural computing, we mean understanding, designing, and building computing technologies that are particular to the needs, aspirations, and practices of rural communities around the world. As researchers and professionals tasked to influence the design and use of sociotechnical systems, we believe it is our responsibility to ensure that rurality is well represented in design insights. In doing so, our article argues for a recentering of rural areas; we seek to design from the rural rather than for the rural (from the urban perspective). We emphasize that the design problems of the rural merit more than urban hand-me-down solutions.
You can read and download the article here for free in PDF or HTML.
Interactions – July-August 2019
I have a new journal article out in Information, Communication & Society, one of the most prestigious and high-impact journals for research in Information and Communication Studies. The article, titled “Queer Information Literacies: Social and Technological Circulation in the Rural Midwestern United States,” explores the information landscape of rural LGBTQ people. You can read it here. Email me if you don’t have institutional access to it and I’m happy to provide a link for a free download from the publisher.
The article is based off of ethnographic fieldwork with rural LGBTQ people in the Upper Midwestern United States. In it, I document the various information sources, both digital and analog, that rural LGBTQ people use and the relationships between those information sources. I argue that circulation through different kinds of information sources leads to the creation of different understandings of what it means to be a part of the LGBTQ community. This difference in understanding LGBTQ identity and community is particularly impactful in rural communities, who naturally have much smaller populations of LGBTQ people. When these differences in understanding lead to conflict in rural places, it has an outsized impact in those communities.
Through all of this, I propose the concept of queer information literacy: a process through which LGBTQ people find, recognize, share, and create information related to their sexual and gender identities. Queer information literacy reframes information literacy to be seen as a cultural process of coming to understand one’s identity, rather than a process of learning and teaching normally associated with institutions (e.g., colleges and libraries).
I believe that this concept (and the paper more broadly) has a lot to offer research in many fields that deal with information, media, and rurality. Feel free to reach out to me if you’re interested in talking about it. I’m happy to chat more about the paper and my ongoing research with rural LGBTQ people in the Midwest.
I am spending this week at the Designing Interactive Systems conference in San Diego. My provocation published at this conference, “How the Design of Social Technology Fails Rural America,” received the Best Provocation award. You can read more about the paper in my previous blog post.
I’m happy to announce that I had two short papers accepted for the 2019 ACM conference on Designing Interactive Systems (DIS).
The first paper, titled “Participatory Design and the Future of Rural LGBTQ Communities,” documents preliminary results from a series of participatory design workshops. It describes the LGBTQ Futures Project, a collaborative and community-based research project that uses participatory design to understand how lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people in rural places experience community and technology. We highlight the resource needs among our participants, how they differ between rural students and non-students, and how rural LGBTQ people envision the future of social technology that is designed explicitly for their needs. You can take a gander at the PDF pre-print here.
The second paper, titled “How the Design of Social Technology Fails Rural America,” is a “provocation” (a unique paper style for this conference) and argues that, unless we abandon growth and scalability as metrics of success in social technologies, we will never be able to appropriately design for rural places. You can see the PDF pre-print here.
I’m looking forward to attending the iConference next week (March 31-April 3) in College Park, Maryland. The iConference is the annual meeting of the iSchools Organization, the collective of schools, colleges, and departments doing work in areas related to information science, library science, informatics, and information technology. I’ll be taking part in the day-long Doctoral Colloquium on Sunday, where I’ll be presenting and getting feedback from peers and faculty mentors on my ongoing dissertation research. I’ll be sticking around through Wednesday to listen to all the great talks and meet friends a new faces from iSchools all around the world, so if you see me, say hi!
Another think piece on rural America popped up in the New York Times a couple weeks ago. As you’d expect, it painted a picture of rural areas as backwards, behind the times, and unable to catch up or keep up with the needs of a supposedly tech-dominated economy. I wrote a bit of a tweet-storm, which was picked up by some folks over at The Atlantic, who asked me to expand on it for an article on their CityLab site. I was more than happy to oblige.
Read it here: “How Rural America is Saving Itself”